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When Boxers Dance (and Dancers Box)

Date: Mar 12, 2014

How fighting and dance combine in Broadway's Rocky


The new musical Rocky, now on Broadway at the Winter Garden, incorporates everything you'd expect from the classic film about a down-on-his-luck Philadelphia fighter who boxes his way to glory. The iconic run up the stairs, the climactic battle between Rocky and Apollo Creed, and even snippets of "Gonna Fly Now"---they're all present and accounted for.

But it's the movement of the boxers---a fascinating blend of dance and fighting---that reminds us we're in the theatre, not at the movies.

Behind all the punches (and the groovy 70s numbers) sits an unpredictable team of Broadway choreographers: Kelly Devine and Steven Hoggett. Devine, of Rock of Ages fame, has a knack for high-energy sequences that pop with sass and pyrotechnic kicks and turns. Hoggett, whose diverse projects include Once and Peter and the Starcatcher, crafts phrases built largely on pedestrian movements that evolve into transcendent gestures.

Once this partnership was in place, the duo searched for performers who could maintain their agile dancers' minds <em>and</em> move like authentic boxers. The choreographers say that while both dancers and boxers have intrinsic body awareness and an ability to memorize movement, the similarities end there. "We had to find dancers who could flip a switch to go from choreography to boxer movement that's more about shifting weight than pretty shapes," Devine says.

This proved challenging both in group numbers and when working with principals. "We've had this ongoing creative process where our two leads have to learn the choreography, then unlearn it and do it as boxing, and then find the middle ground between the dance and the fight," says Hoggett. "It can't be too heavily in the boxing arena because that increases the risk of injury. But if it looks like solid choreography, we've lost the battle, too."

It took a long time to find the right performers. "We were asking them to do different things," says Hoggett. "Kelly needed excellence in dance and character, and then additionally I needed them to look like they're in a boxing gym. That's a tall order, and there were lots of people that were one but not the other. We only had six weeks to rehearse, so they had to have both from the get go."

While the chosen dancers worked on mastering this delicate balance, the choreographers found their own tag-team approach. For example, to explore the final fight, Hoggett first worked on an early sketch, while Devine handled some of the sexy ensemble numbers and training sequences in other parts of the show. Then the two traded: Hoggett cleaned up boxing technique while Devine devised the slinky walks of the ring girls who strut in between the battling Apollo and Rocky.

Devine explains, "We started playing with the girls strutting through and thinking about, 'Where do we get the ring cards, how much space does one girl need, and how can you break up the guys?' [We had to] make space for a ring girl and be fluid. What they do with the tiaras, the heels, going through the ring ropes: It's amazing, and it took a lot of rehearsal."

Understandably, much of the duo's time was spent crafting the climactic bout. Since the boxing ring actually slides into the audience during this moment, it has to look good---and stay safe---from every angle. "Our first week we only worked with our lead boxers and understudies to get the initial version on its feet very gently," says Hoggett. "Then we refined it and let the punches land a bit heavier. This has gone through many versions, and the glory of having the boxing ring in the middle of the theatre is that we can look at it from all sides."

Of a multitude of changes made in previews, Devine suggested one particular tweak that raised the finale's fever pitch. "One idea that really pushed the moment in the right direction was Kelly's thought to have Apollo 'ride' the boxing ring into the center of the audience, so that his overwhelming energy and confidence carries the ring forward physically," Hoggett says. "We're watching the show and seeing how we can ride the crest of those crowd-pleasing moments, not with embellishment, but with character. Apollo is the mechanism, the activity, by which the ring moves, which Kelly was smart enough to see."


Lauren Kay is a writer and dancer based in New York City

Photo by Matthew Murphy